Sunday, May 2, 2010
Albums of Magic and Beauty... Redux: Death, Dying and Rock’n’Roll
George Harrison’s wonderful posthumous album, Brainwashed, helped move rock and roll into the uncharted waters of the 21st Century.
I can remember sitting in a Catholic grade school classroom and the voice of the Parish Priest booming out of the public address speaker high up on the wall in the front of the room. The voice, sounding like I imagined the voice of God might sound liken said that, "under no conditions, will beetle haircuts be permitted."
I had no idea what he was talking about, none of us did, but anything that could put that little edge in God’s voice seemed like it might be worth checking out.
A little later, in February 1964, I remember sitting in my living room and, with my sisters and mom and dad, watching The Beatles’s debut performance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
This is not about nostalgia; it is about continuity and memory.
For many people my age the life cycles of The Beatles taught us something about aging and, yeah (yeah, yeah), dying. When Brian Epstein succumbed to “misadventure” it was the moment, collectively, we learned that people really could die. But, where Lennon’s death was a reminder that we could die, Harrison’s is the unsettling reminder that we will.
The memory of hearing John Lennon’s Double Fantasy in the days right after his death in December 1980 is caught up with the sense of tragedy that Lennon’s senseless murder evokes. Listening to George Harrison’s Brainwashed the inevitable comparisons between these two records have some important limitations.
On the album’s official web site, Rolling Stone editor Anthony DeCurtis wrote:
There can be no question about the depth of Harrison's spiritual convictions, and Brainwashed makes that clear yet again. In his final years, Harrison confronted the imminence of his death, and that experience provides the foundation of this album, though not in a luridly explicit, confessional way. It's more like the events of his last years lent an inevitable gravity to issues Harrison had pondered for decades. When mortality stopped being a philosophical problem, but could be felt every moment in the beat of his pulse, these are the songs that George Harrison wrote.
Unlike Double Fantasy, Brainwashed is written by a man who knows his time is almost gone. That sense of immanent departure clings to every track here like little wisps of smoke from an incense censor.
Pop music hasn’t been exclusively “youth music” for quite some time, and as pop music sensibilities intersect and merge with the personal and political realities of adult life we get new kinds of albums that have no real precedent in rock & roll. Lou Reed’s 1992 album, Magic and Loss, structured like a novel in 14 chapters, confronted and examined the powerful feelings brought on by the loss of close friends to cancer. Warren Zevon's The Wind (2003) was released two weeks before his death from lung cancer.
What if all this talk of death and dying is not morbid and depressing? What if one of the core reasons that art is essential for the health and well being of a culture is in its ability to explore things like this and report its finding back to us in albums like these?
I expect to hear some claims that this is not the proper subject matter for a rock and roll record, that rock “works best from the neck down,” and so on. But this is blue sky stuff. When we were twenty and making this music we kind of thought we’d live forever. As we headed into thirty and saw the bodies of those who’d fallen prematurely we thought “live fast, die young, leave an attractive corpse.” Now, as we slam into fifty at high speed we’re mostly thinking, “Hey, sixty’s not that old.”
There was a MTV interview that replayed in the day after George’s death. Both George and Ravi Shankar were on the program and you could sense that each of them found some comfort in the others presence. There was a guitar case sitting in the studio and the program’s host (whose name escapes me now) mistook it for Harrison’s and asked if he’d play something. Always gracious, George agreed and played 3 or 4 tunes. The one song that sticks out from his impromptu solo acoustic set was "Any Road," the opening song on Brainwashed.
I’ve always been a sucker for records with strong opening tracks and the reason I’ve been raving over this since I first heard it is at least in part because of how good this opener is. About half way through George sets up the album’s balance between self-deprecating observation and Zen advice:
I’ve been traveling on a wing and a prayer / By the skin of my teeth by the breadth of a hair / Traveling where the four winds blow / With the sun on my face – in the ice and the snow / But oooeeee it’s a game / Sometimes you’re cool, sometimes you’re lame / Ah yeah it’s somewhere / And if you don’t know where you’re going / Any road will take you there.
Besides having some of George’s best songwriting in years, this is a fantastic slide guitar album. What guitar fans will notice here is that Harrison’s slide style has moved into a more Ry Cooder-sounding direction than on any of his previous albums. His use of Indian micro-tonal scales is still present on tracks like "Marwa Blues" and the album’s title track, but there’s more of a blues-based character to his slide playing on the rest of the album than I think I’ve ever heard from him before.
Aware of his approaching death, most of the lyrics here are automatically given layers of extra meaning, and lines like these from "Rising Sun" gently return to the album’s central theme: But in the rising sun you can feel your life begin / Universe at play inside your DNA / You’re a billion years old today / Oh the rising sun and the place it’s coming from / Is inside of you….
The album was completed by Harrison’s son, Dhani, and ELO-founder and former Traveling Wilbury, Jeff Lynn. Lynn is notorious for a heavy-handed production style that borders on the obnoxious, but under Dhani’s supervision and with specific instructions left by George for Jeff to please not overdo it, the production is mostly sparse and to the point.
The album’s closer, the title track "Brainwashed," is also the album’s crown jewel. It sounds both like an extension of "Beware of Darkness" and also has a lyrical flair that reminds me quite a lot of a vintage Bob Dylan song (Dylan and Harrison had collaborated on a number of occasions and I was always dreaming that a full length project might one day show up). There is an unmistakable Dylan cadence to lines like:
They brainwashed my great uncle
Brainwashed my cousin Bob
They even got my grandma when she was
working for the mob
Brainwash you while you’re sleeping
While in your traffic jam
Brainwash you while you’re weeping
While still a baby in your pram
Brainwashed by the military
Brainwashed under duress
Brainwashed by the media
You’re brainwashed by the press
Brainwashed by computer
Brainwashed by mobile phones
Brainwashed by the satellite
Brainwashed to the bone
A cadence that switches back to pure Harrison on choruses like:
God God God
Your nature is eternity
God God God
You are Existence, Knowledge, Bliss
Frozen in time back in 1964 into his role as “the quiet one” I still miss George, his dry British humor and his understated guitar playing. Perhaps there is some solace to be found in the quotation that adorns the center of the CD booklet.
“There never was a time when you or I did not exist. Nor will there be any future when we shall cease to be.” (Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita)